Home from Houston

In early February I was struggling. I simultaneously loved and hated life in Houston and I was absolutely petrified of what God would call me to do this coming school year.

I loved my time at Alief Hastings High School. I love the teachers I worked with. I love my sophomores. I never questioned whether I was valued – it was always clear that I was. (I sometimes questioned whether I was loved but even my more hesitant students came around by the end of my time there.) When I was at school, I felt like I could stay in Houston for the rest of my life.

The struggle entered the picture when I was not at school. I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of Houston, in population and in geography. I tried going to Bible study at my parish but the drive on top of the two-hour study turned out to be more stressful than fun, so I quickly let that go. This left me without a strong faith community. I have realized upon reflection that some part of me forgot that it took years to build the support I had at Newman and when I failed to find that at my parish I broke my own heart.

The dichotomy of emotions had me incredibly confused. As my friends are aware, there was a time when I was convicted that I would never student teach in Houston. When I started to ask God to call me home to Nebraska, I was terrified that He would change my mind again. Even though I knew I was meant to be in Houston, even though I knew that He had changed my mind for the better, I somehow feared that changing my mind to want to stay would be a change for the worse.

With more logic than prayer, I decided to look for a job at home first. Since Texas starts their hiring process later then Nebraska it was easy to keep Texas as a back-up plan. I was looking for districts in Nebraska that would be comparable to Alief, where I student taught. Alief is incredibly diverse – less than 5% of students are white and more than 80% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch. If I was going to come home, my best chances for cultural familiarity would be Omaha or Lincoln Public Schools.

In March, I applied to Lincoln and started the interview process before I finished my OPS application. I was not too worried, because I had decided, outside of prayer, that LPS is where I wanted to be.

A few days after receiving news that I did not get the position at a Lincoln high school that I interviewed for, I got another email from the district. I called the office and was asked if I would be interested in interviewing for a middle school. In my extreme eloquence, I said, “ummm…. Sure.” I am fairly certain “sure” sounded more like a question than a statement, but in the moment between the question and agreeing to the interview I remember thinking to myself, “well, at the very least it’s interview practice and you probably shouldn’t say no to that Michelle.”

Of the multiple long-distance interviews I did, the middle school interview is the only one that used Skype instead of just a phone call. The ladies that interviewed me were more conversational that I had otherwise experienced, which helped me relax. Now let me tell you, I have a terrible habit of talking myself around questions to the point that sometimes I forget what I am supposed to be answering (my spiritual director can confirm this; sorry Father!) but during this interview I was the opposite. I answered right out of the gate and defended each answer with experience. After the interview ended, I was scared at how confident I felt. What if they offered me the job?

In an effort to avoid the possibility of middle school and the fact that I had only heard from one other Lincoln high school, I finally submitted my application to Omaha.

The next morning, Dawes Middle School offered me a job teaching seventh grade English. As I drove to adoration that night, I could not comprehend the peace in my heart. I almost turned around and just went home because I felt so sure that I already knew what that peace meant, but I went to adoration anyway. On the drive home, I could not stop giggling and saying to myself, “oh my gosh I am going teach middle school. . . Jesus, what are you doing to me?! . . . middle school. . .” I was baffled to say the least. I never saw myself as a middle school teacher. What had Jesus done to my heart in that short week?!

As I sit here writing about that episode of what I call “Jesus giggles,” I find myself beaming with joy all over again.

Today, I got the keys to my classroom and I am sitting in my wonderful one-bedroom apartment in Lincoln that I moved into this past weekend. Folks, life is getting real. I have so many reasons to be stressed about school starting in just four short weeks, but right now, as I look back at the journey that led me to Dawes, I cannot believe how blessed I am.

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He Calls

Every day He calls us. He calls each of us to follow Him. He calls each of us to holiness. This is our primary vocation, a word that comes from the Latin “vocare,” meaning “to call.” While we all share this primary vocation, our secondary vocations vary greatly, especially in what we are called to do from day to day. I am called to be a student so that I can live out my call to be a teacher. It’s probably obvious that we need to pray about our bigger vocation (marriage, religious life, and priesthood for the men). But how often do we pray about the smaller ones?

Choosing to come to UNK was part of my vocation, but I don’t think I ever prayed about it. A lot has changed in my life and my faith in the last four years, however. As I started looking to student teaching as early as last fall, I wanted to do this discernment the right way. I wanted my decision to be rooted in prayer and ultimately be God’s decision.

This mindset came into play shortly after I was presented with an adventurous opportunity for my semester of student teaching. For years, UNK and UNL have been sending student teachers down to Alief – an independent school district (ISD) in the southwest corner of Houston, Texas. One of my best friends started expressing an interest in the program early in the semester last fall. Ultimately it was her interest and enthusiasm that sparked a curiosity in me. I started doing research and praying about it.

On some level I think I’ve known for a long time that I would be called to Texas, to Alief. I spent all of the fall semester and the beginning of the spring semester anxious that the answer would be “go,” yet having a strong pull on my heart to keep praying and be open despite the anxiety. Some of it was the result of pride. I’ve known about the Houston Program for years because my cousin did it (and loved it so much she stayed for a few years) and I had always been adamant that that path was not for me. It was from fear of being so far from home, of a very deep and prolonged homesickness. Lastly, my hesitation came from the idea of leaving behind Kearney and all the people and places that have made this city my home over the last three years. This is very cliché, but Kearney is where I found myself, where I learned to identify as a daughter of God, where I have been shown endless hospitality and love and have been given the opportunity to serve others in that same way.

So what changed?

I kept praying through all of these obstacles. Going into this summer of Totus Tuus, I knew that I would need to have my answer by the end of the summer or shortly thereafter in order to apply for student teaching. Late in the spring semester, I began telling anyone who asked that I was 85% sure that I was going to go to Houston. All I was waiting for was that last, definitive answer from God, whether that came in the form of a sign in the sky, a whisper in my heart, or the removal of that last 15% of doubt. As the idea grew on me, I began to fear that it was only of me and not of God. I told Him that if He wanted me to go, He should finish working on my heart and thereby make it clear by the end of the summer.

About a month into the summer, I got the opportunity, finally, to sit down with my cousin Kelsey and talk about her experience teaching at Alief. (At this point I was closer to 92% sure, but I didn’t have my definite answer yet.) Kelsey was not shy about giving me a reality check about how difficult it can be to see and relate to students in such poor circumstances. But she also shared how much they benefitted from her joy, once they started to believe that it was genuine. Kelsey is one of the most joyful people I know, so I was intimidated by her insistence that joy was essential. However, she did not hesitate to affirm me in my joy, as if she could see the self-critical cogs in my brain turning as I questioned mid-conversation whether I could be that joyful. I walked away from our conversation needing only the final “go ahead” from God; (around 98%).

Two weeks later, at the mid-summer retreat for Totus Tuus teachers, I got my answer. I was frustrated because every time I had tried to take it to prayer I would get distracted by something more immediate. As I knelt in adoration, I was thinking (not praying) about all that I would miss if I were to not be in Kearney this spring. When I finally looked up at Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament, all I could think was, “I would be so comfortable in Kearney.” And before my exasperated prayer could turn into a fit or a rant, He put an answer on my heart, “you are not called for comfort.” I finally had my answer. The Mass that followed that holy hour was possibly the most distracted I have ever been. All I wanted was to tell everyone the good news! (And look up the phrase, which I had recognized. It is a popular one from Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.)

At the beginning of September, I turned in my student teaching application, which included the crucial, hard fought detail that I want to go to Houston to work in Alief ISD. If has been such a joy over the last few months to share my news with friends and family who continue to baffle me with their enthusiasm and support; thank you all.

I also want to take this opportunity to thank those of you that have expressed concern about my future home and have been worried about my dream and plans in the wake of Hurricane Harvey. I ask for your continued prayers for me, but especially for Houston and the rest of southeast Texas.

I come from a very different background than the students I will be working with. I have never experienced disaster, let alone to the magnitude at which they are currently experiencing it. But I do know one thing. My vocation this spring is to share my joy with the students in Alief ISD.

A Bittersweet Ending

This summer, filled with so much grace and so much love, has forever altered how I define the word bittersweet. Endings are always difficult but I had no idea how hard it would be to watch this chapter close. As we parted ways, I was saying goodbye to the three people that were at my side day in and day out through all the highs and lows, three beautiful souls that challenged me every day to be a better person in so many ways, three of my best friends. As we went our separate ways, we were leaving behind a family and a way of life. 

After Totus Tuus I did not know what to do with my time. Of course, a good portion of it went to catching up on sleep. But you can’t sleep forever. I spent more than two months sharing almost every waking hour with my team and that bond is not something small. I missed them. After a week at home I came back to Kearney to reunite with friends here after my summer away. There was great joy in being home with my roommates and Newman community, but I also found that moving half way across the state did not mean that I got to stop processing the end of Totus Tuus. Jesus was, and is, still inviting me to walk with Him as I sort through the events of the summer. 

No matter how many times I manage to forget, God continues to gently remind me that the end of one good thing does not mean the end of all good things. When I come to the end of a chapter in my life, I consistently find myself believing that there is no way anything could be better than what I am leaving behind. But what God has shown me, time and time again, is that there is good in every chapter. I am never the same person I was on the first page and every change that happens in me is due to His amazing grace in my life. 

While these weeks readjusting to normal life have been trying for me in many ways, I know that they, trials and all, are an amazing gift. When Totus Tuus ended, I wanted nothing more than to come straight to Kearney and move on with my life. I did not want to process the bittersweet ending; I wanted to jump into my next endeavor to avoid this short time of waiting. Waiting makes me anxious. I am a child of my culture and have been spoiled by a society that has taught me that if I want it, I can and should have it now. God’s timing rarely works that way. I needed this time in between two good things to experience His love in the season of waiting, to learn to be patient with His timing, and to allow myself to be held by Him in my sadness. 

Even in the sadness I find joy in His grace. As one of my teammates pointed out, we would not be this sad if there had not first been so much joy and love. The end of this summer was bittersweet. The bitterness of the ending comes in knowing that this summer was unique. It has happened and the joy, graces, and love that we shared will never be duplicated. But oh, the sweetness of that joy, those graces, and that love. It cannot be duplicated but I will always hold each day and each memory as precious. I would like to end with a verse from Psalm 16, which is used in Thursday Night Prayer (Compline) and has been a grace to me continually this summer, “He has put into my heart a marvelous love for the faithful ones who dwell in His land.”

God Does Not Do Disaster

I did not realize how sincerely I had been expecting disaster until our midsummer retreat in early July. When I looked back at our first month, I realized that everything had gone so much better than I expected. In fact, it had gone better than I even dreamed of expecting. 

My team last year did not really fight and we often chose team time and adventures over naps. We got along so well, that leading up to this summer and even after our work started, I did not expect to be that blessed again. I did not think that God would give me two amazing, adventurous, loving teams. I did not think anyone could deserve or receive that kind of grace.

In a way I was right – I didn’t deserve that big of a grace. I don’t deserve anything. But it’s not about being deserving or not, it’s about receiving the love that God has to offer us, no matter how that love is manifested in our lives. 

For me, one of the biggest ways I have seen His love working in my life is through my teammates, all six of them. They have each taught me so much about myself and about what it means to live for Christ, to pour ourselves out in love of neighbor every day. 

Together we have walked closer to Christ. I am not the same person I was before teaching Totus Tuus. I am not even the same person I was before this second summer. With my teammates by my side I have become a new creation in Christ and my heart is changed forever. 

God does not do disaster. God does the exact opposite: blessings poured out from an infinite love. We just have to be ready to receive.

Year Two!

I made the decision to return to Totus Tuus very shortly after the close of my last summer. Essentially, I told Jesus, “I am going to do Totus Tuus again unless you put something VERY appealing in front of me as an alternative and if You do You’d better make it VERY obvious.” Now, I would not suggest telling God your plans in such a stubborn way. It really doesn’t usually work out. But in this case, I was lucky enough to ask for what He had already planned on giving me.

Being a “returner” does not come without anxieties. But it does come with a whole summer of experiencing God’s graces in all imaginable situations; a summer from which I can draw confidence in His goodness and love for us and everyone we serve.

In the past two weeks I have been reminded by Him of the beautiful surprise I had at the end of last summer when reflecting on the depth of my relationships with each of my teammates. Who knew that humans were capable of loving so deeply after only two months? Definitely not me. As week one of teaching draws to a close, I look forward to every adventure and to the moment of reflection in late July where I will marvel at God’s goodness in putting us together.

I continue to be amazed at the graces that have and will come from God and the intercession of Saint Pope John Paul the Second, as I again find myself on the team under his specific patronage. On my pilgrimage to Rome in March I was able to pray at JPII’s grave. I thanked him for his intercession last summer and asked him to again intercede for the program this summer. I actively dismissed the dream of being on Team JPII for a second year. But as my former teammate said when I was telling him stories about Rome, “JPII just isn’t done with you yet.” And neither is God.

From the Hurting Heart of a Middle School Religious Ed. Teacher

The past two weeks my sixth graders have completely stunned me and my co-teacher, Claire, with their honesty and vulnerability. Most of my kids are twelve years old, but they are thinking and worrying about things that are so much bigger than them. There are two separate issues that came up on two separate nights. The second one I will save for a separate post.

Two weeks ago we were talking about healing. We started with superheroes and moved on to the ultimate superhero – Jesus. Our main activity was to have each group write a song about what needs healed in our society with one group focusing on Nebraska, one on the US, and one on the world. Before they started we asked them for suggestions to get the gears turning. The first thing any of them brought up was suicide. I cannot write the look on this little twelve-year-old girl’s face when a few seconds of thought produced this idea. In that moment I saw my own heart break reflect in Claire’s eyes as well. Do not mistake me, they are twelve and there were a few who made jokes, but a majority of our class had hurt in their eyes.

I know the Church’s teaching on suicide and I feel that this is a good time to share it. The Catechism (2280-2282) emphasizes that it is contrary to natural inclination to live and is not in the spirit of thanksgiving, as our lives are a gift from God. However, “grave psychological disturbances, anguish, or grave fear of hardship, suffering, or torture can diminish the responsibility of the one committing suicide” (2282). It goes on to emphasize that we are not God and therefore cannot determine whether or not a suicide victim is or is not worthy to enter the kingdom of heaven.

This topic is something that came up frequently when we did our question box for the high schoolers during Totus Tuus. But how do I explain that to twelve year olds? How am I to go about doing anything other than comforting them and reaffirming the value of life when some are sad and some crack jokes? On reflection we realized that we could have handled it better than we did and that too breaks my heart.

When the kids brought it up, all we really did was confirm that suicide is a problem in our community and that it is an incredibly difficult and painful situation. I honestly don’t remember saying much more than that. As soon as we sent them home for the night, Claire and I expressed to each other how surprised we were that they had started that conversation. We realized immediately that we should probably have temporarily de-railed the lesson to address their concerns. We did not explain to them what the Church teaches on the matter, maybe directed at a stray comment from one of the students but definitely not with the attention of the whole class. We also realized right away that we had missed our opportunity. I feel fairly confident that if we tried to bring it up now, they would all be shut down to the conversation.

Suicide is hard to talk about with twelve year olds. I did not handle the situation the way that I would want to, looking at it in retrospect. However, in the most positive and Christ-centered view of things that I can find, I have to trust that what Claire and I said was appropriate to our classroom, that in those few moments the Holy Spirit spoke through us. Out of all this worry and sadness of our failures, that is my prayer.

In the weeks since I felt moved to make arrangements for their concerns to be addressed and their questions answered. The Director of Religious Education (DRE) is currently attempting to arrange for the parish priest to come in and speak to the kids, something that Claire and I are looking forward to so that our students may be set at some ease. Feel free to comment about how you would have handled the situation or suggestions for how I and other Religious Educators might seek to go about it in the future.

Top 10 Reasons to Teach Totus Tuus

There are a lot more than ten reasons, I promise! But sadly I’m writing a blog post and not a novel so I had to limit myself.

After number one they are in no particular order!

  1. Jesus – Liturgy of the Hours, daily rosaries, daily Divine Mercy Chaplets, and DAILY MASS. That doesn’t even include all the ways that you experience Him though other people and the world around you. The prayer life of a Totus Tuus summer is what I dream of during the school year. It takes a lot of discipline and accountability that many of us fail to find in the midst of academic and career stress. But I am happily still swimming in all of those summer graces.
  2. Other teachers –Building friendships on the basis of Christ Himself is incredibly powerful. Those ten days of training are more than enough to build bonds that last a lifetime. And that may sound cheesy, but I swear to you it is true. No friendships are stronger than those build around faith in Christ. Whenever I make plans to meet up with one of my fellow teachers I am overcome with a happiness that permeates my heart and soul. This heart and soul happiness is because I know that I will not only encounter them, but will encounter Christ living and thriving in them.
  3. Your team – When you spend all day every day with the same people, you walk away a family. My team showed me how to be myself, my true, goofy, shy self that doesn’t shut up once she opens up to you. They challenged me in my faith by the beautiful examples I saw in each of them day-in and day-out. They trusted and believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself. Your team shows you how to live out love in a new way, on good days and bad days and all the days in between.
  4. First through sixth graders – I was amazed at how much I enjoyed the day program; I am a secondary education major, after all. I was nervous for this program but there was no reason to be. The younger ones say the darnedest thing and the older ones have questions galore. Every class period was a surprise. Oh, and they have the biggest hearts.
  1. Middle and high schoolers – This is where the connections are made. It doesn’t happen often, but students open up to you about their prayer lives and struggles and their vulnerability can be very inspiring. The curriculum is also more laid back for them than for the little kids. It is mostly about sharing personal faith stories and developing fellowship, although we pray together as well.
  2. Princess Palace and Knights Court – The phrase “daughter of God” used to make me flinch. I knew it but I struggled to believe it of myself. Every day between Mass and lunch, Sydney and I took the 1-6th grade girls and Jon and James took the boys. The girls learned about how to act like a daughter of God our King and Mary our Queen. The boys learned how to be gentlemen and how they should treat the ladies. At the end of the week, the girls are crowned and the boys are knighted. After each crowning my heart was a little more open to the idea. It was a little easier to have faith “like a child.” I truly cannot put into words the looks that some girls gave us at the crowning. It was a joy that could be rooted only in their soul. (That is to say, it’s a joy very different than the “we’re going to Disney” type of joy.) And when one of my sixth graders objected that someone had to crown me? Yeah, my heart melted and I crouched down so she could reach me.
  3. The families – Every night we had supper with a different family from the parish. Some were awkward. But oh my did we get a beautiful view of family life for that one hour! Younger kids show us their toys. Parents with kids out of the house take time to point out all the family photos and tell us the cool things their kids are up to. Older students show off their hobbies and musical talents. It is always an adventure. Their love is so incredibly evident; not only their love for each other, but also their love for us and what we do, for the complete strangers that they welcome and feed out of the kindness of their hearts.
  4. Silly songs – Yes, this really is a positive! If you can stand up and direct 30-60 kids in the banana song while parents and older siblings come in and (every once in a while) pull out their phones, then you can do anything.
  5. Vulnerability – I know that this is a scary word. Trust me. I know. But there is no safer environment than your team to practice living it. And if you can turn around and share your story with middle and high school students, who are so grateful to have an example, then how could it not be easier to share with those who know and love you? Notice that I did not say that it becomes easy. Only easier. It is definitely a journey but while you’re teaching Totus Tuus you have to speed walk down this road instead of shuffling your feet. It is a beautiful challenge.
  6. Team Date Day/Team Adventure – Our Date Day was Tuesday, called JP-Twosdays after our team patron. Every Tuesday we would use our free time in the afternoon to go on adventures. Sometimes this just meant getting ice cream and trying to leave behind the Totus Tuus talk for an hour. Sometimes this meant adventuring a few towns over, like the week we went to the smallest town in the state of Nebraska (Monowi, Population 1). Team Adventures included trips to Iowa ( . . . ew.), South Dakota, and, for James and I, our first ever rodeo.

As you can tell, there are a lot of ways to grow during Totus Tuus and they are by no means easy. But nothing in a Totus Tuus summer is unrewarding. There are abundant graces and so many different ways to change your own relationship with Christ and to inspire and help others do the same. As someone said at our end of the year retreat, “Totus Tuus is a lifestyle.” If you are at all present spiritually then a summer of Totus Tuus affects a lot more than just that one summer. It makes changes your relationship with Christ, it changes how you see yourself as His daughter or son, and it results in a lifelong desire to live Totus Tuus.